Friday, June 25, 2010

A Response To Dance

Dance writes:
Keep in mind that I am a historian (although, I do not do either gender or women's history, just FYI).

Please offer up an example of a gender role for women that has not had pernicious effects, in practice.

In general, I'm against ALL roles that constrict what people can do and in favor of letting individuals follow their preferences--I try to apply this consistently, so I'm against "boys don't wear pink" "black people don't swim but must race track" "smart kids are only truly successful if they can get to the Ivy League", etc.

I am very unsure what you mean by this:And also if they aren't to be treated the same always, then why isn't her description a gender role, albeit a different or more limited one?

So, this offer up a gender role for women that has not had pernicious effects in practice is a good question, but also, I think, a leading one. I didn't argue that gender roles were entirely benign. Like everything they have good and bad to them. But what stacks the deck is to focus only on women. Gender roles are part of how you interact with society. So, the question is whether gender roles have, on balance, been a net benefit or net cost to society. Given that most societies have settled upon broadly equivalent gender roles, women staying home and nurturing/men going out and fighting or politics or business, I've gotta think there's some net benefit to them.

Perhaps though, like slavery, it was one of those things that was morally repugnant, but economically or socially necessary. Or perhaps, as that recent Atlantic article argues, changes in the economy make women's skills as or more valued than men's. Nevertheless, I think it's wrong to only focus on the effects upon women when benefits could be society wide. So, perhaps ultimately this is an individual autonomy versus interests of society disagreement, as you make explicit in your third sentence that you value individual autonomy.

And in regards to:
if they aren't to be treated the same always, then why isn't her description a gender role, albeit a different or more limited one?

My question is this: Do you believe men and women should always be treated exactly the same? If you don't, then you favor gender roles, right?

Also, I think we're not actually that far apart on this in reality because I am worried somebody will tell Miss FLG that she can't do math. We're just both taking the somewhat extreme positions.

UPDATE: If I had to sum up my stance, then it would be this: Gender roles have negative effects, but they've also served society historically, which counts for something, so let's not throw the baby out with the bath water by getting rid of them altogether. Let's focus on where they manifest negative consequences.

2 comments:

arethusa said...

Just a question on this:

"Given that most societies have settled upon broadly equivalent gender roles, women staying home and nurturing/men going out and fighting or politics or business, I've gotta think there's some net benefit to them."

Partly this is a natural division of labor, which makes sense in most societies, civilizations, assembly lines, what have you, because division of labor breeds greater resources, and economic and cultural development. Clearly there's a gendered aspect to this initial division, since women bear children. But doesn't the idea of fixed gender roles come after the division of labor? It's a far cry in ancient Greece, for instance, from Neolithic hunter-gatherers to fifth-century Athens with its extremely tight gender roles (at least for upper- and middle-class citizen women).

Which brings up another point. Strict gender roles often appear to be a privilege of the upper classes, i.e., the wealthier a society, the more likely there is to be fixed roles. So is it just a question of social benefit?

dance said...

I already answered this, right? I think people should be treated as individuals. I do NOT think any different treatment for males and females is equivalent to gender roles, because I focus on the "role" part---the idea that one is expected to perform a certain way or fill a certain space---not the "gender" part. Not against gender, I'm against roles.

I'm in favor of single-sex education, for instance--it diminishes gender roles. I think, however, that the fact I was taught theology via some half-assed textbook that paraphrased the Bible while the local boys' Catholic school read Aquinas is about the gender ROLE that women are not expected to be intellectuals, whether that was an expectation placed on us or simply passed on via the fact that the nun who taught theology had never been expected to read Aquinas, etc.

Let's focus on where they manifest negative consequences.

I would say let's focus on where they aren't fucking relevant. The contemporary US specifically genders many many things that do not need to be gendered. If there isn't a good reason for gendering it, let's get rid of the gender aspect. And I'd argue we're on much safer ground saying "gender should be irrelevant to color" than saying "girls are expected to like pink, and pink is understood as feminine, and feminine is understood as touchy-feely not technical----BUT decades of being surrounded by that received wisdom makes no difference whatsoever in any way to the self-perception a girl might hold or any career choice a 20-year old might make". I'm not comfortable with that second argument. And if you are, then I want to hear why religion, growing up in California or France, learning the liberal arts, etc, are all environments that can shape certain habits of thought---but gender doesn't. Despite, you know, it being central to how one interacts with society.

And there's no conflict between individual and society here. Sure, maybe way back when society needed ALL female labor devoted to childrearing simply to propagate the population. However, food and medicine have made child-rearing way more efficient on a societal level, creating a lot of excess female ability that can be redirected.

 
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